Tokyo (Japan) – The starting gun for retail high-definition video discs has been sounded, as Toshiba’s first HD-A1 and HD-XA1 HD DVD players – currently touring the US, though not for sale here – are now available through Japanese retail outlets. The era of high-definition video discs – if, in fact, there is actually to be one – has officially begun.
Toshiba’s HD-XA1 HD DVD player, which was released for sale in Japan today.
Along with the players’ release comes the first official specifications from Toshiba that will not be subject to change prior to sale. Even now, however, a few key specifications aren’t clear, and some A/V experts are continuing to raise concerns. According to Toshiba, both the A1 and XA1 will support Dolby’s new audio codecs, Dolby Digital Plus and Dolby True HD, plus the new DTS-HD codec. All three of these are anticipated to be supported by the new HDMI 1.3 standard, which governs the interface for connecting digital components, such as the HD DVD player to a 1080-line HDTV. For HDMI to support these new lossless codecs – where information is not dropped due to compression – its audio bandwidth had to be expanded.
Toshiba’s specifications, with the lossless codecs included, make clear that the A1 and XA1 intend to support HDMI 1.3. But Sony, the company chiefly responsible for its implementation, won’t have the final 1.3 specification ready until at least June, its own executives have said. During Sony Computer Entertainment president Ken Kutaragi’s announcement two weeks ago of the delay of the PlayStation 3 game console until November, the June release date for HDMI 1.3 was cited during his presentation. In fact, it was this release date which had been cited, prior to Sony’s announcement, as the final milestone that must be reached for PS3 to meet its then-anticipated goal of a spring release.
When at the recent Game Developers’ Conference, TG Daily tried to arrange for a demonstration of a PlayStation 3 being attached via HDMI to a brand new Sony HDMI display, representatives of Sony provided a serial rendition of unrelated excuses for why such a demonstration was impossible, even with all the available components and cables on hand. The waiting period for HDMI 1.3’s completion has been cited as among the reasons why many Blu-ray player manufacturers have held off on their initial releases until after the spring.
So the question on some experts’ minds today is, how are Toshiba’s players supporting the new lossless audio codecs, while still enabling consoles to maintain connectivity with modern high-def displays? Among the fully digital HDTVs with 720p, 1080i, or 1080p resolution already sold, most support the HDMI 1.1 standard, published prior to the adoption of lossless audio codecs by the HDMI LLC licensing body. According to reports, the new Dolby and DTS signals will contain embedded tracks that enable downward compatibility with older digital interface standards – “older,” in this case, still meaning just within the past few years. In any event, stereo components whose best audio format is still Dolby 5.1, should still be able to produce sound from the new lossless signals, even with the higher bandwidth requirements…if the player producing the signal supports HDMI 1.3. Other reports from members of the AV Science Forum, as well as reports elsewhere, indicate that testers of new high-def components where the player supports lossless audio, discovered that when they connected those components to HDMI 1.1-compliant displays, all they could hear was white noise. Engineers have since commented that the tests themselves could be at fault.
According to Toshiba, both players will also support “multi-channel audio output” in addition to HDMI, and the company promises that sound produced through these new codecs will be adaptable to multi-channel. For its part, Dolby promises that TrueHD sound data is designed to be interpretable using “legacy” equipment with standard digital or multi-channel connections, for sound quality that is at least compatible with Dolby 5.1 or 7.1 audio. The question, whether Toshiba’s first-round implementation of HDMI – which may be not quite 1.1 but not quite 1.3 either – is capable of fulfilling Dolby’s wishes for all classes of “legacy” stereo components.
Toshiba’s specifications this morning only indicate the A1 and XA1 support “HDCP-capable HDMI,” the former abbreviation referring to a copy protection mechanism developed by Intel for digital high-definition video components. That narrows Toshiba’s HDMI support only slightly. Shane C. Buettner, writing in Ultimate AV, wonders what constraints Toshiba’s early adopters may find themselves under. Will they be able, as Toshiba representatives told reporters at CES 2006, to upgrade their systems the way one flashes a PC’s ROMs – through software? Or will an upgrade to HDMI 1.3 require a trip to the repair shop, perhaps for both the HD DVD player and the HDTV? These questions, today, remain up in the air.
Another critical component that Toshiba states its players will support, but whose completion remains mired in confusion, is AACS copy protection. Toshiba’s specifications mention AACS support in two places, although as TG Daily has learned, Toshiba and other manufacturers, including Sony and Panasonic, are implementing AACS through an interim agreement. That agreement omits the specifications for mandatory managed copy (MMC), the process by which owners of licensed discs will be enabled to make limited copies of them. Sources close to the licensing process tell TG Daily that the dispute continues to revolve around whether studios or licensing bodies should have final say over whether any disc can be copied by a consumer. Until that argument is settled, the interim specification makes it possible for Toshiba and other manufacturers to build and sell high-def players, though without any facilities for copying discs whatsoever – for now. How those facilities make their way to existing high-def players…brings up the whole question of upgrades again.